Slow, rain-soaked progress made at US military's second Haiyan aid spot
GUIUAN, Philippines — Much of the focus for Typhoon Haiyan aid has centered on Tacloban, the largest city ravaged by the massive storm, but the U.S. military set up another relief hub in Guiuan after witnessing the devastation in the isolated fishing and farming town.
U.S. personnel flying into the ancient airport see a landscape of broken buildings, felled coconut trees and mountains of debris. The powerful winds overturned trucks, collapsed concrete buildings and uprooted utility poles, leaving a tangle of wires among the ruins.
Officials estimate several hundred deaths. Virtually every home in the town of 45,000 lost its roof and many were blown away entirely.
Two weeks after the Nov. 8 disaster, Guiuan remained without power and water, according to U.S. Navy Capt. Neil Williams, who was overseeing operations at the town’s airport.
“Water in the well system has been tested and it is safe to drink, but without power they can’t pump it,” said Williams, who arrived in Guiuan days after the typhoon.
The town’s 16th century church — one of the oldest in The Philippines — lies in ruins, its roof gone and walls collapsed.
“The priest held an open Mass last Sunday because he didn’t have a church,” Williams said last Thursday.
One of the luckier residents, who lost his roof but not his house, is Scottish adventurer Gordon Smith, who visited the town in a sailboat in 1998 and returned in 2005 to live with his Filipina wife.
The 58-year-old mountaineer has been volunteering at a warehouse distributing relief goods to the less fortunate.
“A lot of houses here collapsed, even concrete ones,” he said. “The ‘Nipa’ huts with leaf roofs and bamboo walls are gone.”
The first U.S. military teams to arrive in the city assessed the hospital’s capacity and scope of injuries. They also looked for disease indicators, although mosquito-borne illnesses were not an immediate concern because breeding areas were contaminated with salt water from the storm surge, Williams said.
Work at Guiuan hasn’t been easy for the military personnel with steamy conditions and monsoon rains.
“When it rains, people take cover or just stay out and enjoy the coolness,” Williams said, adding that shelter is becoming the top priority now that enough food and water are being distributed.
The airport is a hub for incoming relief supplies that help dozens of scattered villages.
About 60 flights a day have been bringing in tens of thousands of pounds of goods in a fluid and dynamic operation, Williams said.
“On a ship, flight operations are more structured and planned well in advance,” he said. “Here, I rarely knew when an airplane was coming.”
Marine Chief Warrant Officer 2 Julio Dominguez, 36, Houston, Texas, oversaw aircraft refueling operations at Guiuan, which ended Friday as the U.S. military presence waned.
Dominguez said refueling while hundreds of displaced people clustered nearby was a challenge.
“I’ve run fuel farms in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there weren’t a lot of civilians in those areas,” he said. “It was all military controlled whereas here, there’s limited space.”
U.S. military C-130 Hercules, V-22 Ospreys and H-60 Seahawks have landed here in the past two weeks, along with planes from the Philippine Air Force, Swedish Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force and civilian aircraft hauling aid and personnel, Williams said.
“The large airplanes have been offloading supplies,” he said. “Rotary wing aircraft have been taking supplies out to remote islands and places that are isolated because of closed roads.”
Thousands of evacuees have been flown out, mostly going to Cebu and Manila, Williams said.
A battalion of Filipino troops has taken over most duties from U.S. forces, and as roads open up, helicopter flights have been replaced by a constant stream of trucks hauling supplies to the needy.
Smith, the Scotsman, said Guiuan now needs materials to rebuild. Boats to replace those sunk by the storm would allow the local fishing industry to restart, but it will take at least five years for decimated coconut groves to become productive again, he said.
Capt. Akeem Adelagun, 34, of Houston, Texas, who commanded 63 Marines from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Guiuan, said cooperation with Filipino military counterparts helped the operation run smoothly.
“We were just here doing that with an exercise with the Filipinos on Luzon,” Adelagun said, adding that after the Marines deployed, they were able to call soldiers with whom they had worked and ask what they needed.
“It’s showing up and meeting our friends, people we have worked with before, and doing what we’ve been trained to do,” he said.